In Ages Past
"A Servant of the Lepers": Brother Joseph of Molokai
His motive was not to hide from the world, but "to do some good for my neighbor and at the same time make it my penitentiary in doing penance for my sins and errors." From San Francisco, he sailed for Molokai in the summer of 1886.
With two pensions, Joseph had saved a good deal of money. (At Molokai, he would donate some $10,000.) He served as administrator, carpenter, and repairman; he bandaged wounds; he coached baseball; he comforted the sick and the dying. "Every day," one biographer writes, "he marveled more and more at the courage he saw around him—bravery, he often said, much greater than in the war he had been through." He made a difference. Before his death in 1889, Father Damien said: "I can die now. Brother Joseph will take care of my orphans."
Although he never took religious vows, Dutton was known as "Brother Joseph," a "brother to everybody." On Molokai he found real peace and joy. One peer recalled: "Dutton had a divine temper; nothing could ruffle it." At 83, Joseph wrote: "I am ashamed to think that I am inclined to be jolly. Often think we don't know that our Lord ever laughed, and here my laugh is ready to burst out any minute."
He never left Molokai; he never wanted to. "Seek a vacation?" he asked. "Anything else would be slavery . . . The people here like me, I think, and I am sure I like them." He added: "I would not leave my lepers for all the money the world might have." The one exception was in 1917, when the 74-year-old patriot tried "to buckle on my sword-belt again" and re-enlist. His application was rejected, but he wasn't heart-broken.
Before his death on March 26, 1931, he said: "It has been a happy place—a happy life." It had been a restless life until he found happiness among the lepers of Molokai. At the time of his death, the Jesuit magazine America noted: "Virtue is never so attractive as when we see it in action. It has a power to believe that we too can rise up above this fallen nature of ours to a fellowship with the saints."
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Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.